Hello Myanmar, described as “outrageously picturesque” in many travel guides. But if you read on, they also describes this country as tremendously poor. The truth is that the picturesque scenes that so enrapture us are the inadvertent byproduct of years of isolation and oppression by a military dictatorship, with Myanmar itself being more than meets the eye. Is it time to go see for yourself?
“We were once the richest country in Asia. Think about it: we have hardwood, oil, petroleum, precious stones and plenty of fertile farmland. It’s unbelievable that we’re now one of the 20 poorest countries in the world,” says the millionaire’s son with a sigh. He lost his inheritance years ago and is now a taxi driver.
This is the tragedy of Myanmar. At the start of the last century nearly everyone could read and write, but now only 30 per cent of the population finish elementary school. The veil of enchanted innocence is a thin one indeed and, once lifted, begs an important question: should we visit this country and obliviously relish in the sights, sounds and experiences it has to offer? According to the Burmese we meet on our travels, the answer is a wholehearted, enthusiastic “Yes!”.
Everyone here seems so happy and cheerful: the famed leg-rowing fishermen with their conical-shaped nets wave at us as they slowly emerge from the morning mist; the bashful nuns at the golden rocks of Kyaiktiyo who approach us hoping to improve their English; the two orphan children hoping to earn some extra money by lighting one of the 1,000-year-old temples of Bagan with flashlights (‘mind your hear please’); the lonely monk in the beautiful old monastery who, realizing some of us are Dutch, yells ”Ply a Pokkel” (Fly a Fokker) and smiles when we tell him Fokker went bankrupt years ago.
Every tourist represents a glimmer of hope
As pop sensation Kennedy puts it: “Myanmar has been isolated from the rest of the world for decades. We want to be a part of that world and every tourist represents a glimmer of hope for us.”
In the land of ox-carts and bicycles, you don’t usually have to worry about freeway tailgaters. But of course we manage to attract one. He suddenly appears behind us in a brand-new, gleaming Japanese 4WD. He follows our ramshackle bus for 30 minutes at the breakneck speed of 20 kilometers per hour as we desperately try to maneuver a road filled with potholes and piles of stones. Our driver, Myint, suddenly bursts into song: “I am sailing, I am saaaaailing!” He flashes a “no problem” grin, but we’re hard-pressed to believe what he is singing.
Myint is the one who brought us here. An hour ago he introduced us to Koo, a laconic man and former judge with a dark face and light eyes. During the free elections in 1989, he decided to start his own campaign and traveled from village to village to spread the blessings of democracy. The uneducated villagers seemed to hang on his every word and the Democratic Party won with an overwhelming majority. Despite earlier promises however, the military tightened their iron grip on the country and jailed members of the opposition.
Koo, a dissident representing the ruling majority, was sentenced to ten years in prison. Following his release, he opened a cafe in a small reed hut where land workers could drop by on their way home for a tea, a palm beer and some off-key karaoke (the country’s national passion). Replying to our clichéd question of whether he feels bitter about the whole ordeal, he says with a smile: “Politicians are never angry and never bitter.” Our coffee was free.
A spy goes with the territory
Thanks to a conversation with one of the regime’s personae non gratae, our tailgater, or ‘The Spy” as we’ve dubbed him, is now hot on our tail. ”Well,” Myint says as we clang and clatter onwards, “in this Orwellian country a spy goes with the territory.” He says this just to calm our nerves. This is the reality of living in a dictatorship.
For an hour The Spy hobbles along menacingly behind us. But we refuse to allow one wary yet cautious spy to destroy three weeks of wonderful experiences. Myanmar is the finest and most beautiful country we’ve visited in years and we suddenly realize that what makes it so impressive is the tenderness of its people juxtaposed with the sheer, raw reality of life here. It’s that mixture of sweet and bitter that you can taste in the food (black tea and sugar, pink grapefruit with spices and shrimp paste), smell on the streets (sweet jasmine and rotting garbage) and see in the rich landscape dotted with humble cane huts.
June-June lives in one of these huts. “My father called me June-June because I was born in June. He was a play critic but died when he was 44. My mother wanted to move as far away as possible from the place where he died. We were alone and penniless, so what did we have to lose? She ended up getting a job in a hotel 1,000 kilometers from the city where I was born. The money I need for college is more than her salary, so I work during my holidays and we get along. After school I’m going to be a tour guide so I can take care of her.”
The lives of many Burmese are marked by heavy setbacks resulting in a combination of resignation and hearty resilience. Their strength is found in laughter. On the streets and in cafes, shops and convents, the atmosphere is markedly upbeat. Although comedians have not yet gained any real popularity, nowhere else in the world have we heard more robust laughter than here in Myanmar.
We’d just perform for our fellow prisoners
“One little joke about the military and bang – he was thrown in the can.” Comic Lu Maw points over to his brother, Par Par Leh, who is rolling a banner out across the floor of the Moustache Brothers’ Chamber Theatre in Mandalay. “We figured he’d face problems by campaigning for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but to think he’d be imprisoned for five and a half years – how dare they? Ha ha! We learned English and began staging (now illegal) shows for tourists. Other Burmese are now no longer allowed to hire us and they don’t dare come see our shows. Every day could be our last hey, but we’d just perform for our fellow prisoners instead! Ha ha!”
Aung Zeh says: “My grandfather was a minister who financed the country’s first airport using his own resources. Then the military came along and took ownership and suddenly we were as poor as everyone else. I wanted to become a pilot but in order to do that I’d have to join the air force. So I became a pharmacist instead. But who has money for medicine here?
“For the last couple of years I’ve been exchanging medicine for art. I do good work. I set up clinics in areas where doctors are unheard of. What do you think of this figurine? Wanna trade it for your sunglasses?”
For those that lack the stomach – and the patience – for human suffering, Myanmar offers much, much more. For lovers of nature, history, culture and local color, this country has plenty in store: Buddhist temples, blissfully unaware of their own magic; exuberant landscapes that change from jungle to prairie; ads for Bounty bars and Milka chocolates; colonial hotels, palaces and botanical gardens; rare birds; simple – sometimes backward – city life; golf courses (with mini-pagodas for tees); new culinary finds; mystical convent cities; mountain ranges and long white beaches. All of these are at your disposal for mere peanuts.
Myanmar is safe, friendly and extremely laid back
And those who manage to avoid conversations with ex-prisoners will find that Myanmar is a safe, friendly and, above all, extremely laid back place. Yet investors, developers and tourists remain hesitant about how to approach the country. Do they donate money or do they boycott? Whatever the choice, everything ultimately circles back to Burmese tenacity; the endurance of a people prepared to make countless sacrifices for a better life, even though many still don’t understand how they manage to do it every day.
“In 1998 I was halfway through my dentistry study. I was a wild guy. I wanted freedom, a better future. With my fellow students I put up posters on government buildings demanding democracy. And like so many others, I was sent to Insein Prison in Yangon. When I was released six months later, I wasn’t allowed to continue my study. I went from an aspiring dentist to a hospitality host working on ships in Singapore and Malaysia.
“Unfortunately, a Korean businessman with false promises stole all my savings three years ago. I devoted my life to democracy; a democracy that thousands of men perished for during the 1988 demonstrations. Maybe I could have applied for asylum in your country, but I despise that kind of action. It’s not going to get any better if we don’t fight for it. And besides, who would look after my family if I left? I look after everyone: my old mother, my widowed sister, my wife and my child. It’s not really all that bad being your chauffeur, ha ha! And as far as The Spy goes, I’ve seen worse!”
As if he’d been eavesdropping on our conversation, The Spy suddenly slinks off to the right as we turn left. The knots in our stomachs slowly begin to uncoil and we become simple tourists once more, here to experience all the beauty the country has to offer. At once a dictatorship and incredibly heartwarming, Myanmar is truly a bittersweet country of extremes.